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GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - With China's rising affluence, increasing numbers of infertile couples have been seeking surrogate mothers to bear them babies.
In recent years, officials have largely turned a blind eye to this underground womb-for-rent industry that defies the country's strict childbirth laws. Now, there are signs the authorities are starting to crack down by forcing some surrogate mothers to abort their fetuses.
In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, three young surrogate first-time mothers were discovered by authorities hiding in a communal flat.
Soon afterwards, district family planning and security officers broke into the flat, bundled them into a van and drove them to a district hospital where they were manhandled into a maternity ward, the mothers recounted to Reuters.
"I was crying 'I don't want to do this'," said a young woman called Xiao Hong, who was pregnant with four-month-old twins.
"But they still dragged me in and injected my belly with a needle," the 20-year-old told Reuters of her ordeal which happened in late February.
The woman, who declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals, said the men had forced her thumbprint onto a consent form before carrying out the abortion.
Another of the surrogates, who said she'd come from a village in Sichuan province, recounted how officers made her take pills then surgically removed her three-month-old fetus while she was unconscious. "I was terrified," the 23-year-old said.
A spokesman for the Guangdong Provincial Family Planning Commission Zhong Qingcai declined to be formally interviewed by Reuters, but said authorities were investigating.
The official Guangzhou Daily newspaper quoted district family planning officials as saying the women were all unmarried and acting as "illegal" surrogates. It added the three had "agreed" to undergo "remedial measures" in accordance with the law.
But the head of the surrogacy agency caring for the mothers, disputes this version of events.
"It's an absolute crime," said Lu Jinfeng, the founder of the "China Surrogate Mother" website (www.aa69.com) which has run for over five years without encountering any problems like this.
"By forcefully dragging people away like this to undergo an abortion is a savage illegal act that violates human rights."
Since the incident, a notable vein of officially sanctioned media reports, including one paper describing the profit margins of the surrogacy business as "greater than the narcotics trade," has led some observers to expect tighter curbs in future.
"When you see this kind of reporting it's a kind of public education ... a sign the government is going to do something," said Siu Yat-ming, an expert on China's family planning issues with Hong Kong's Baptist University.
"They're becoming more aware of the situation ... a lot of the (surrogacy) agencies are making a lot of money just like an organized industry," Siu added.
Underground networks of surrogacy agents, hospitals, and doctors have spread in recent years as infertile Chinese couples with money hire surrogates to produce babies for them.
The surrogates are often confined to secret flats for most of the duration of their pregnancy to avoid detection, while fertility, obstetrics and childbirth procedures for the mothers are often carried out discreetly by medical staff at public hospitals and health clinics with links to agents.
"Under China's civil law, this (surrogacy) should be prohibited. Intermediary (surrogacy) services are also essentially illegal," said Zhang Minan, a law professor at Guangzhou's Sun Yat-sen University and an expert on the issue.
"But these cases exist and they cannot possibly be made public or legalized. You cannot legalize such practices," he added, referring to China's tight birth planning rules which have restricted couples to just one child since the late 1970's.
With around one in six couples in the U.S. now estimated to be infertile and with similar rates seen in China as modern urban lifestyles take hold, surrogacy agencies have been recruiting girls, often from poor villages, to have babies on behalf of prospective parents, in ever greater numbers.
Accurate figures on the size of the industry are hard to come by, but a recent report by the respected Southern Metropolis Weekly estimated around 25,000 surrogate children have been born so far in China, citing research into surrogacy agency websites carried out by family planning authorities.
Hundreds of Chinese surrogacy agencies are openly listed on Chinese search engines like Baidu, luring prospective clients with maternal imagery and pop-up windows offering live chats.
Prospective surrogate mothers are openly recruited and paid between 50,000 to 100,000 yuan ($14,650) per pregnancy on some sites, making it a lucrative profession for poor village girls in a country where the average annual per capital income for rural households is around $600.
While emotional, ethical and legal complications make surrogacy a thorny topic in many countries, the trend has been on the rise globally. India, in particular, has become a "surrogate outsourcing" hub for infertile and gay Western couples.
"There are millions of people out there who want to have kids but can't," Robert Klitzman, a bio-ethicist at Columbia University's Medical Center told Reuters by phone from New York.
India has moved to introduce legislation on surrogacy to safeguard the rights and health of impoverished women from exploitation.
In some U.S. states paid surrogacy is outlawed, while weak regulatory oversight in states such as California has led to clients being duped by unscrupulous surrogacy brokers.
"Whenever you have an underground industry you're going to have problems because there's no guarantee that they're going to follow standards of safety, follow standard medical or ethical practice. There's a lack of transparency," Klitzman added.
In China, however, with the number of surrogate births still very small compared to the overall birth rate, the prospect of a safe legal framework remains a distant one, leaving open the risk of arbitrary, violent enforcement.
"They (the authorities) do have the right (to force abortions) but it rarely happens because such surrogacy is extremely secretive. And for the authorities it's difficult to get evidence," said Zhang, the legal scholar.
"Because this problem hasn't yet sparked widespread social interest, so from this perspective the Chinese government hasn't really noticed the matter, nor accepted it," he said.
"If this problem does spark widespread social interest, then authorities might start to do something about it," Zhang added.
Editing by Megan Goldin